[Ed. note: Along with spoilers for the final season of BoJack Horseman, this piece discusses suicide and other sensitive topics. An early version of this story discussed BoJack’s potential suicide; it has been edited for clarity and sensitivity.]
One of Netflix’s most innovative, important original series ended on January 31, with the release of BoJack Horseman’s final eight episodes. The final season focused mainly on BoJack’s recovery and relapse, and on the consequences of his behavior finally catching up with him. But the series still ended with a glimmer of light. The show has tacked addiction, abortion, abandonment, asexuality, and alcoholism, among other heavy topics, and it’s never pulled its punches. When it came to BoJack’s final resolution, though, the show was set for a knockout, but it failed to deliver the final blow.
To its credit, the series’ final arc initially forces BoJack to confront his past. Investigative reporters Paige Sinclair and Max Banks had been digging up BoJack’s involvement with the death of former child star Sarah Lynn, a saga which also links into his highly inappropriate relationship with teenager Penny Carson. When the story eventually breaks, though, the context around Penny is shorn away almost entirely in favor of the Sarah Lynn celebrity angle. It’s not unlike the way the #MeToo movement was originally supposed to give a voice to the powerless sexual-harassment survivors who worked as cleaners, secretaries, and other low-clout occupations, until it became exclusively interested in the scandals of the Hollywood elite.
Just as BoJack’s ghostwriter Diane predicted, when BoJack admits to his already-exposed failures during a TV interview, while sheltering his behavior behind his addiction, he successfully shuts down the story. He even endears himself to the public as a tragic, broken man. Yes, some women died or had their lives destroyed along the way, but the public is concerned about the ways this famous man feels sad about himself.
BoJack might have kicked the pills and cut the booze, but he could never get over his addiction to the applause. The TV interview with Biscuits Braxby gives him everything he wanted: a clean slate, security for his teaching job, a shot at a real relationship with Hollyhock. And yet he still wanted more. He had nothing to gain from a second TV interview, apart from more applause and adulation, and that’s exactly why he went back. But where Braxby’s first interview held up a self-portrait for BoJack, the second held up a mirror. The first time around, it was an artful depiction of the truth, colored by the tragedy of addiction. The second time, it was the stark naked truth.
It’s true that in some ways, the second interview was a raw deal. Braxby highlighted that BoJack broke his rehab acquaintance Jameson out of rehab to go to a college party, but he was actually trying to keep her sober. But calling up Sarah Lynn when she was nine months sober? Giving her the heroin that killed her? Climbing into bed with Penny after her mother, Charlotte, rejected him? Sarah Lynn’s first drink? Sex with the president of his fan club? Having sex with Sarah Lynn, even though he admitted he saw her “like a daughter”? All of this is on BoJack. That’s not even getting to his physical assault of an actress on his show Philbert, the way he derailed the career of director Kelsey Jannings, or any of the horrible things he did to the people he actually considered friends.
Imagine if all these crimes came from Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. Imagine if it was your least favorite actor. Hell, imagine if it all came from a widely respected Hollywood saint like Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks. There would be no coming back from this litany of abuse. It doesn’t matter how much viewers like BoJack, or identify with his depression or struggles with self-worth. It doesn’t matter how sorry he seemed, or how much he’s improved. Throughout this series, BoJack was a bad person who used people, and never fully understood it.
The entirety of BoJack Horseman season 5 is built around the idea that audience members shouldn’t connect with television characters, and absolve them of their faults, only so they can absolve themselves by proxy. BoJack is a realistic character who has flaws and upsides, like everyone. It’s natural that viewers may see themselves in him, just as they may see themselves in the various flaws of the characters around him, like Diane or Princess Carolyn.
But being a great TV character doesn’t make a BoJack a good person, and it doesn’t mean the damage he caused doesn’t matter. The series is locked into his perspective. Viewers get to focus on how sad he gets, how self-destructive he can be, how he’s so often one of the primary victims of his own actions. If the show was called Sarah Lynn or Penny Carson, though, BoJack’s actions would be the same, we’d just see much more about how the real victims were affected. BoJack Horseman breezes past the fact that Penny suffered from panic attacks for years post-BoJack, and the show only focuses on Sarah Lynn when she’s directly involved in BoJack’s life. And they’re only two of his many casualties. Just because he doesn’t like himself when he screws up others people’s lives doesn’t count for an awful lot, especially when the show only looks at the ways his choices affect him.
“But isn’t everyone entitled to a second chance?” Ignoring the fact that BoJack is in triple figures for fresh chances by now, he blows his latest opportunity, his season 6 trip to rehab. He doesn’t reach out for apologies beyond his immediate circle. He only apologizes to his old makeup artist Sharona because of a chance meeting, and even then, he throws her under the bus in the Biscuits Braxby interview. But mostly, he apologizes to the people immediately around him, because if they aren’t currently affecting his life, they don’t matter.
At least his half-sister Hollyhock had the good sense to cut him out of her life permanently. They don’t have the cleanest resolution, but that’s what he deserved. Hollyhock didn’t owe him anything. So why does the show feel like she did?
BoJack Horseman is one of the best pieces of television this century. It manages to be funny and surreal. It experiments with animated storytelling, and addresses thorny personal issues with a sharp, daring vision. Judging entirely on the quality of the storytelling, the series deserved to go on for another 10 years. But the series never ultimately calls BoJack to account for what he’s done. It takes him to a particular low point, then forgives him yet again.
And that undermines any sense of consequences for what he’s done over the course of the series, particularly to Sarah Lynn, who didn’t deserve to die in the planetarium. BoJack fatally failed her, and his bubble of powerlessness and mutual addiction doesn’t excuse his choices. For 17 minutes, while she was dying, he deliberately waited and did nothing about it, because saving her wasn’t as important as making sure no one thought of him as a bad guy. Throughout the series’ six-season run, BoJack was offered too many chances to do right, and he failed to really take any of them. And yet the show gave him yet another shot at the end. It sent him off to jail for a short stint for breaking and entering his old house, but that’s a brief punishment, and it’s nothing in comparison to the lives he’s ruined.
No justice can bring Sarah Lynn back. She died for BoJack’s optics in the planetarium, and the show shouldn’t have moved past that so easily and readily. Todd, Mr Peanutbutter, and Princess Carolyn all seem happy in the finale, but they’re still all willing to give BoJack yet another chance. Diane, who’s moved away and moved on, doesn’t cut him out completely, the way Hollyhock did. There are even rumors he could get his career back once he’s out of prison. It’s a bittersweet ending at best, but even that’s more than BoJack deserved.